It's becoming increasingly hard not to have an opinion on foodbanks. So, make sure you're not falling for any of these common myths.
Eleven foodbank myths you must not fall for
1) foodbank only provide food
Sunderland foodbank provide a lot more than food; that’s because we recognise that tackling hunger also means tackling the underlying cause of the crisis. Sunderland foodbank signpost people to local agencies and charities who help people break out of poverty.
Over 90% of Sunderland foodbank provide extras alongside emergency food: this can vary from toiletries and sanitary products, to baby basics; holiday clubs; CV clinics; and financial, welfare and housing advice. We’re currently partnering with Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis to pilot hosting financial and debt advisers in foodbank. This extra level of support aims to help people during their immediate crisis, whilst also recognising that it can take more than food to help someone break out of their situation long term.
2) foodbank are only used by people who don’t know how to budget
A midwife recently visited a foodbank. She was thrown into crisis when her husband left the family home; the sudden shift from two incomes to one left her struggling to juggle the cost of childcare for her young children whilst she was on hospital shifts.
It was not that she didn’t know how to budget; it was that she did not have enough to budget with when her situation changed unexpectedly. Put simply, if you have no money as a result of a crisis, it’s very difficult to budget. People on low incomes are often very innovative in managing extremely low budgets. But when a ‘life shock’ from an outside source – like an unexpected bill or redundancy – hits, there is no breathing space to cushion family finances.
3) People go to foodbank because they don’t know how to cook
Lots of people in poverty do know how to cook, but it is very hard to cook when you have no money for food. We are currently piloting ‘Eat Well Spend Less’ courses that teach people who’d like some help how to cook on a very tight budget.
4) People go to foodbank to get free food, or dog food, so they can spend their money on junk food, tattoos and cigarettes
Edwina Currie used this argument last year. But going to a foodbank is a last resort when all other coping strategies have been exhausted. It takes courage to admit you cannot feed your family. People wait on the other side of the road for half an hour, or stand outside in the cold, before finally walking through the foodbank door. One young woman who used a foodbank recently said “going to a foodbank was very emotional for me. It’s not something you do lightly, many people break down in tears when they come in. It’s an independence thing.”
The stark reality is that without foodbank people go hungry, and foodbank prevent people from turning to extreme measures such as shoplifting or rummaging through bins in order to eat.
5) You can’t use a foodbank if you work
Anybody can be in need of emergency food; there is no one ‘type’ of person who goes to a foodbank. Our North Cotswold foodbank manager, Rhian, said that at her foodbank she often meets working families on low incomes who are thrown into crisis when something like an unexpected bill hits; when a crisis hits someone in low paid or insecure work they often have no financial safety net.
6) foodbank are unhealthy
Independent nutritionists worked closely with us to ensure that the three days’ worth of emergency food we provide is nutritionally-balanced. A typical parcel contains, amongst other items, tinned vegetables, tinned fruit, pasta and UHT milk, and everyone who goes to a foodbank is asked whether they have any specific dietary requirements. Furthermore, dieticians are still consulted periodically to ensure that foodbank are up to date with the latest guidelines.
7) Supermarkets should give leftover food to foodbank, especially fruit and vegetables
Since the Feeding Britain report stated that their ‘anger knows no bounds’ at the destruction of 4.3million tonnes of edible food deemed ‘surplus’ by the UK food industry, calls for supermarkets to give leftover food to foodbank have become increasingly common.
Some Sunderland foodbank, like Coventry, provide fresh produce – when available – alongside food. We wouldn’t rule out doing this on a wider scale, but logistically it’s not a sudden blanket answer for all of our foodbank. Smaller foodbank cannot cope with storing perishables, and batches of surplus fresh food can often be unpredictable. Our standardized non-perishable food, unlike in the American foodbank model, means that turning to a foodbank doesn’t leave a family faced with eating whatever is available on the day.
8) foodbank cause dependency
We’re the UK’s biggest foodbank provider and we don’t think anyone should need to be dependent on food aid. That’s why our foodbank help people out of crisis long term rather than just giving food.
If someone comes to a Sunderland foodbank more than three times in six months our system automatically flags that. Then we work with local agencies and charities to make a plan to help that person back onto their feet. On average people only need two foodbank vouchers in a year to help them out of crisis.
9) Foodbank figures have only increased because more and more foodbank are opening
This is not wholly true. The rate of new foodbank opening has dropped significantly within the past year, and now stands at roughly two a month, but numbers helped have continued to increase: in 2014/15 the total numbers of foodbank launched rose by five percent, whilst numbers of people helped by foodbank rose by 19%.
10) Sunderland figures aren’t accurate and the foodbank figures are so high in the UK because the same people keep going back again and again
The Sunderland foodbank has consistently reported the number of people given three days’ emergency food by Sunderland foodbank. We don’t claim that The Sunderland is reporting unique users. We measure numbers given three days’ food, which is a measure of volume. It is similar to how A&E statistics are collected.
Recent evidence from a wide range of Sunderland foodbank showed that 69% of foodbank clients only needed one foodbank voucher in a year to help them break out of crisis. Only 15% of people needed more than three food vouchers in a year.
Year-on-year, the figures are showing an increase in numbers given three days’ food by Sunderland foodbank. For us, the focus is on the people behind the statistics, the reality of hunger, and how we can find ways to help foodbank numbers go down in future.
11) Sunderland foodbank figures reveal the full extent of poverty in the UK
Sunderland foodbank figures cannot be used to fully explain the scale of the food poverty across the UK, because our figures only relate to Sunderland foodbank and not to the hundreds of other independent food aid providers. There is no official data on other food aid projects, but some people estimate that there are likely to be the same number again of non-Sunderland foodbank style projects in the UK. The fact that so many people are going hungry in the UK today should be deeply concerning to us all.
By Molly Hodson, Head of Media and Emma Thorogood, Press Officer at The Sunderland.
This piece was originally published on HuffingtonPost.co.uk on 24 April 2015.